How to Format an Appellate Brief

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The appellate brief is undoubtedly one of the most complex pleadings, formatting-wise. Formatting requirements vary from court to court, and some go so far as to dictate the size and font of your type, your margins, and your line spacing. (If you’ve ever had to do a U.S. Supreme Court brief, I feel your pain.) Even before you consider the text of your argument, you have to wrap your head around which pages have which style of page numbers, whether you must furnish a table of authorities, and how you have to deal with any appendices or references to the record.

First, take a deep breath. Unless this is the first time anyone in your firm has ever submitted a brief in that particular court, someone probably has a sample for you to look at. Armed with that and a copy of the court’s rules, you can start putting together the skeleton of your brief:

Sample Format Summary - 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Sample Format Summary – 11th Circuit Court of Appeals

Obviously, one tutorial can’t cover all of the possible permutations of briefing requirements. With a knowledge of how some common elements work, though, you can successfully tackle virtually any court’s requirements.1

Step One: Build the Skeleton with Sections

One of the most common requirements of appellate briefs is that they are divided into multiple parts requiring distinct page numbers. In Microsoft Word, this means you need to divide the document using section breaks to enable a specific page setup for each section. Using the 11th Circuit requirements as an example, Section 1 (which would have no page number) would be the cover page. Section 2 (the first page of which would be numbered with a lowercase roman numeral “i”) would contain preliminary information such as the Certificate of Interested Persons, Statement Regarding Oral Argument, Table of Contents, and Table of Authorities. Section 3 (the first page of which would be numbered with an Arabic numeral “1”) would be the body of the brief. Depending on the case, a subsequent section may be needed for references to the record or other appendices.

Even if you plan on doing wholesale copy-and-paste maneuvers from the previous brief, it’s helpful to start with a blank Microsoft Word document and insert the several sections.

Section breaks are very much like regular page breaks, except they allow you to have page formatting for each section.

In dividing your document into sections, you need to be able to see what you are doing. That means turning on all of the visual indicators that show you where paragraph breaks, tabs, and section breaks have been inserted. To do that, go to the Home tab and click on the button that looks like a paragraph symbol (¶). This is called the Show/Hide button and can be toggled on and off as needed.

Now you are ready to start sectioning your document. To insert a section break, go to the Page Layout tab and click Breaks, then click Next Page under the Section Breaks section:

Once you have done that twice, you have the three basic sections needed for your appellate brief: the cover page, the section containing the various preliminary information, and the main fact and argument section.

Here’s how you insert the page numbers in the footer of each section so that they number and format independently:

(If you’re using an older version of Word, you can find a video with instructions for Word 2010 here.)

Step Two: Format Headings

Office for Lawyers author Ben Schorr has observed that Styles is by far the most important feature to learn in Microsoft Word. Not only does Styles help ensure uniformity of formatting throughout a complex document, Styles also drives other features like Tables of Contents.

While a comprehensive explanation of Styles is beyond the scope of this article, you will need to have at least some facility with Styles in an appellate brief.

Specifically, you want to decide how you want your first-, second-, and third-level headings to appear in your brief (bold versus regular type, underlining, indentation and hanging indents, numbering, etc.).

The simplest way to get a jump on your headings styles is to alter the existing ones in your document. You can right-click on a style listed on the Home tab and then choose Modify to change settings like font, type size, bold, underline, indentation, and more.

Perhaps the easiest way to get a heading style to look exactly the way you want is to apply formatting to some text in your brief (just type a sample heading for this purpose and delete it later), select the re-formatted text with your mouse, then right-click the heading you want to restyle and choose Update to Match Selection (the first choice shown in the first illustration above). This will save you from having to go through a maze of menus you may not be familiar with.

You are probably thinking, “Why on earth would I want to bother with all these styles?” Here are three reasons:

  1. Defining your heading styles up front will enable you to apply them throughout your appellate brief with a single click. Because these are technically paragraph styles, you can place your cursor inside your heading text and single-click on the heading Style in the Styles section of the Home tab to format the heading instantly.
  2. If you use Styles to format all your headings, and you later decide to change the formatting of, for instance, your first-level heading, you can change the style and all the headings within the brief will reformat themselves.
  3. The styles for headings 1-9 are automatically pulled into the Automatic Table of Contents, thus saving you the trouble of having to mark heading entries. You’re going to have your hands full marking the Table of Authorities entries as it is.

Two other styles you will definitely want to change while you’re here:

  • Normal, particularly if the court requires a font you don’t normally use like Courier New. Changing the font on the Normal Style will cascade that change down to other Styles like footnote text automatically.
  • Speaking of Footnote Text, most Word templates as delivered will format footnote text (as opposed to the footnote number) as 2 points smaller than regular text. If the court specifies a particular type size but doesn’t specifically allow footnote text to be smaller, double-check with the court and change that Style globally now to avoid an oversight later. I’ve seen briefs get kicked back by clerks for that reason alone.

The Normal Style is in the Styles area of the Home tab. The Footnote Text Style, however, is deliberately hidden from view. To dig that out, drill down into the Manage Styles dialog box. Click the launcher arrow (circled in red below) to bring up the Styles Pane, then click the Manage Styles button as shown below.

Word-manage-styles-1

You’ll get this dialog box. Switch the view to Alphabetical (the red box) and make sure Show recommended styles only is unchecked (the green box). Those two actions will make it possible to see every available Style and find Footnote Text (circled in blue) easily.

Word-manage-styles-2

Click the Modify button, and you’ll see this dialog box:

Word-manage-styles-3

Checking Add to the Styles gallery is optional.

Step Three: Write Your Appellate Brief

While that’s a deceptively simple sounding step, there’s an important reason for writing now rather than doing more formatting work. Steps like inserting a Table of Contents or Table of Authorities or even marking citations are best left for when the text of your brief is close to its final form. Because of the way Microsoft Word uses fields in these features, it’s better to not be moving large chunks of text around or doing major editing with these fields embedded in the brief. Otherwise, you risk mangling a Table of Authorities beyond repair.

Step Three Caveat: Drop in Text from Another Brief (Carefully!)

Much as I try to discourage recycling text in this manner, I realize it’s an irresistible time saver. It’s only a time saver, though, if you do it right.

The problem with dropping in text in wholesale fashion is that it carries with it various codes that can mess up your current brief. That may include Table of Contents and Table of Authorities codes that don’t match up to your current brief. Far better to strip that stuff out before it infects your current magnum opus.

After you open up the “copy-from” brief, open a brand-new blank Word document (CTRL-N or File > New). Paste the text you want to copy into that staging document rather than your brief-in-progress. This will give you a safe environment in which to do your cleanup work. To ensure you’re pasting everything as-is, use the Paste button on the Home tab to choose Keep Source Formatting.

Word-paste-2016

Now, let’s strip out all those unwanted codes without altering the rest of the formatting (italics, etc.).

Press CTRL-H to bring up the Find and Replace dialog box, or find the Replace button on the extreme right-hand side of the Home tab:

Word-find-replace-1

To strip out all of the Table of Authorities (TA) and Table of Contents (TC) codes embedded in your pasted text, type ^d TA or ^d TC (yes, there’s a space between the “d” and the “T”).

Word-find-replace-2

Each time, you should get a confirmation that those codes have been removed.

Word-find-replace-3

It’s now safe to copy the text from your staging document to your brief-in-progress.

Step Four: Insert Your Table of Contents

Once the editing of your brief’s main text is nearly finished, you can move toward putting in the Table of Contents. Since you’ve used Styles for your headings, the Table of Contents will be relatively simple. Just go to the References tab and, over on the left, click Table of Contents and choose one of the automatic tables in the list:

If the default formatting of the Table of Contents isn’t to your liking, you can reformat whichever element you like so that your new formatting stays intact even if you re-generate the table. The trick is figuring out which Style controls each element, since these are typically not listed in the Styles on the Home tab. Here’s a video that should clarify the process:

Since you haven’t actually marked any citations, you can’t insert a Table of Authorities yet. That’s okay, because marking citations is our next step.

Step Five: Mark Your Citations

As long as you know your Bluebook, marking citations for a Table of Authorities is fairly straightforward. Find your first citation and select it with your mouse or keyboard. Then either use the keyboard shortcut ALT-SHIFT-I (which works in all versions of Microsoft Word from 2002 on up) or click on the Mark Citation button on the References tab:

Either way, you will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Choose the Table of Authorities category (case, statute, etc.) you want that citation to appear in, then make the necessary changes to the short citation beneath. If you’re certain that you have been consistent in using the same short citation for that case throughout your brief, you can use the Mark All button to mark all of the subsequent citations of that case. However, you may be wise to go through the brief manually to make sure you pick up everything. (I never trust Mark All.)

Here’s where clicking Show/Hide (¶) on the Home tab comes in handy, because now you’ll see the field codes that signify a marked citation:

If you are curious about what all that gobbledygook really means, see “Before you generate that TOA” in thisTable of Authorities tutorial: “Using Microsoft Word’s Table of Authorities.”

Here’s a quick video demonstration:

(If you’re using an older version of Word, you can find a video with instructions for Word 2010 here.)

Once you have marked all your citations, you can insert your Table of Authorities from the References tab. That button is on the far right end of the References tab.

You will get a dialog box that looks like this:

Click on each category and make sure the formatting is correct (most of the time, it should be fine).

If you want to modify the Style for any entries once you’ve generated your Table of Authorities, use the same trick demonstrated in the Table of Contents headings above. The easiest way to find out what Style is being used by any element in your document is to click your cursor inside that element, then press SHIFT-F1 to bring up the Reveal Formatting pane on the right. You can then click the hyperlink above the Style name to change the formatting.

Word-reveal-formatting-2016

Step Six: Turn Off Show/Hide and Update All Fields

Once you have marked all your citations and inserted all your Tables, you will want to make sure hidden text is hidden and everything has been updated before printing or saving to PDF. First, go to the Home tab and make sure the Show/Hide button (¶) is toggled off. Then, select the entire text of the document using the shortcut key CTRL-A and press F9 to update all fields.

Post-Filing: Make a Template to Shorten the Process for Your Next Appellate Brief

You are probably wondering why we didn’t go ahead and make a template to begin with. After all, don’t you start with a template and end up with a finished brief?

That is totally logical, but here’s the thing: to make a really good template that you can use for all your future briefs, you really need to understand the process of formatting a brief. And the only way to really understand it is to have struggled through it at least once from scratch. If you have been through this whole exercise, you probably changed your mind a few times about certain formatting choices like your headings. Once you have filed a finished brief, that is the perfect time to strip out the case specific stuff and save the bare-bones file as a Microsoft Word template.

To resave your document as a template file, go to the File tab and, instead of saving it as a regular Word document (.docx), click the drop-down list and choose Word Template (*.dotx):

Depending on which operating system and Office version you’re using, Microsoft Word often designates a specific default location on your hard drive. Word 2016 allows users to designate their own default location, which makes them accessible via the File > New command:

That Personal link isn’t available in Word 2016 by default; you have to add it.2 To add a default location for personal templates, click on the File tab, choose Options, and then go to Save. You’ll get a dialog box that looks like this:

Word-default-template-location-2-2016

Once you have created your new template and saved it in the right place, you’re ready to use it for your next brief. Just go to File > New and click on Personal, then find your appellate brief template in the list. When you double-click on it, Microsoft Word will create a new document using your template. If, at any point, you want to revise your template, you will need to navigate to it using Windows Explorer and double-click on the .dotx file itself. After you’ve made any necessary adjustments, save the file and close it.

As with most things in life, practice makes perfect. But the formatting tricks you learn while constructing an appellate brief can be applied in all sorts of contexts, and taking a few minutes to “genericize” your latest brief into a template will enable you to spend less time fussing over formatting and more time lawyering.

Originally published 2012-10-17. Last updated 2016-08-18.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all instructions and screenshots are for Microsoft Office 2016 for Windows. 

  2. In earlier Word versions, Windows assigns a personal template folder. To find it, type this into Windows Explorer’s top address box: %appdata%/Microsoft/Templates. 

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  • Chris Olson

    Great tutorial. I can’t tell you how frustrating and time consuming it was to write my first appellate brief. The formatting took me as long as the legal writing! Now that I have a decent template I an focus on the important stuff, the writing.

  • Jenny Weigel

    On behalf of appellate writing profs everywhere, thank you, thank you, thank you! I review a number of elements of formatting with my students, but don’t cover it as extensively or have it all in one place. This is now going to be required reading for my 2Ls.

  • Bankr. S.D. Awesome

    This is FANTASTIC. Thank you for having all of this information in one place.

  • Avocats

    At some point, our system must evolve to eliminate the special rules for each court and each judge. This is an enormous waste of a client’s money, all in the service of judges’ egos.

  • michael caldwell

    Wonderful article. It will take some re-reading since I am new to MS Word.

  • Benicia Livorsi

    Thank you so much for this great article. I am a Missouri appellate lawyer and I have been using styles and the TOA features in Word since law school in the mid-1990s. To this day, I have only seen one other attorney using Word to the degree of this article. I have a few additional suggestions though, for your brief:
    1) Create autocorrect entries for your most used citation formats. For example I type sw2 and it converts to S.W.2d. I type mca and it converts it to (Mo. Ct. App. with a space for the year”
    2) Create a shortcut key for the section symbol for typing statutes. The citation search tool appears more reliable searching for that symbol than the shorthand Sec.
    3) Use quick correct for your signature block
    4) Use field codes in your certificate of compliance. In Missouri we have to state our word count and so I insert the field for word count into my shell compliance certificate;
    5) Type the names of your sections (the ones you would assign Heading 1 to) along with your compliance certification with the field code for word count and your basic signature block into your template. In Missouri, every brief needs
    a) Table of Contents;
    b) Table of Authorities
    c) Points relied on
    d) Jurisdictional statement
    e) Statement of Facts
    f) Argument including standard of review for each issue
    g) Conclusion
    h) Compliance certificate and
    I) Cover
    By placing all of these headers on individual sheets and saving it as an appellate brief template you can save a lot of time and help make sure you don’t forget an important section of your brief. Your coversheet should have the basics for the Court and the party titles (such as Respondent and Appellant) and the names of the client and appeal number should be all that needs to be changed with each cover on the template.
    I would also add with Table of Authorities, I inevitably accidentally mark a case as a statute category or vice versa. By learning the categories used in TOA, you can turn field codes on and change the category from a 1 to a 2 or vice versa and then regenerate the TOA. You only need to fix this mistake on the first instance you marked the citation since the “short cites” don’t reference the categories. You don’t have to
    hunt down each cite and delete the short cite, etc…just correct the first instance. That also works if you realize you marked a few characters too early so that the cite which shows up alphabetized correctly.

  • m.sola

    Hello, great information! What about adding a new “category” in TOA? Say I want a separate category for Supreme Court authorities, Circuit authorities, etc. Thanks.

  • Jeremy A. Rose

    So…I read something like this and think, “how stupid – this is common sense (i.e., black font, margins, double spacing, etc.)”. But then I think, “wait, these rules must exist for a reason…” I’ve often thought this, but perhaps us young-ish lawyers (34) take too much for granted.

    So my question is, is this really for lawyers who don’t exclusively practice appellate law, or is this just for all lawyers? I will freely admit that my first brief in federal court relied heavily upon that judge’s local rules. But if you do it one, you have a template and it’s easy-peasy from there. So it seems these rules are geared towards newbie attorneys.

    Then again, I still, on occasion, have opposing counsel who, instead of e-signing pleadings, will print them, sign them, and then scan them back in.

    As much as we love to castigate ludditie lawyers, however, I’ve been seriously schooled by such ludidties. No judge has ever applauded me for my use of TrialPad with my iPad (although I still think they have been impressed). A lack of knowledge of the law and the facts won’t replace any amount of tech knowledge.

  • Lauren

    I appreciate this tutorial. However due to likely user error, my brief’s formatting just kind of fell apart right before it was due. I’m just not that great with Microsoft Office. However I thought I’d post here because I found an appellate brief template you can download and it literally saved my life. The site’s name is mylegaltemplates.com and it has an appellate brief template that’s saved in Word format. I spent hours trying to format my brief only to it all go to shit at the end. After I downloaded it, I literally just copied and pasted my argument into the template and it worked perfectly. I recommend to anybody who’s pressed for time and has to turn in an appellate brief.

  • Mo Kane

    It’s interesting how appellate briefs often mandate crimes against typography, starting with the 11th Circuit’s requirement for 14 point type. Double spacing? There was a reason for that in the days of typewriters, but centuries of practice militate against this aberration for good reason. Can you find any double spaced printed books? Interestingly enough, there are different rules for briefs which are “professionally typeset” but you will find nothing in the rules which defines what this blessed state is. As far as I can tell, it’s using smaller booklet format in which you’ll find 12 point type, not to mention smaller margins. And what about word count? Word, LaTeX and Wordperfect–not to mention text editors–all count words differently. Is “gender-neutral” one word or two? What about “bin Laden?” It’s delightful to know that this is one area of the law where the concept of “substantial compliance” is non-existent.

  • Malby

    One of the most annoying things I encountered in 30 years’ litigation practice was the ridiculous, unjustified variation in petty formatting rules from federal district to federal district and even within judicial districts, from judge-to-judge. Upon leaving a large firm and beginning to work from a remote location, about the dumbest obstacle I encountered was a judge who mandated that a paper copy of a brief be dropped into his special mailbox outside his chambers on the SAME DAY that it was e-filed. All of the unique rules are pure ego trips. Find a federal format and apply it across all 90+ judicial districts. Find an appellate rule and apply IT across all circuits.

    And there’s state courts. Arrgh.

    But seriously, one of the best things that legal lobbying groups could accomplish for solos and small firms would be to have this problem fixed. It would also save larger firms time and energy, of course.

  • Malby

    My favorite AUTOCORRECT entry: untied. Perhaps it’s just my typing issue, but it’s important to know that I’m not sending out a document captioned UNTIED STATES OF AMERICA. I autocorrect it. It’s also possibly to have it autocorrect to untied/united? as a flag.

  • Malby

    An ugly event that has occurred twice to me using MSWord for Mac is footnotes turning to gibberish and/or misnumbering. Always at the last minute, of course. The Office for Mac product is riddled with glitches. Documented glitches that you find easily when you encounter the problems and Google for a solution. Why can’t Microsoft engineers Google?